Rail travel could get a boost in Somerset and Wiltshire as a new train operator adopts a significant addition to the rail timetables from summer 2022.
The proposal from GO-OP, which unusually for the rail industry is a co-operative, includes connecting mainline rail with Bishops Lydeard on the independent West Somerset Railway line. By starting a not-for-profit business owned by those who travel on its trains and work for it, GO-OP’s ambition is to establish a new ‘rail corridor’ between Taunton and Swindon. Several stations in Somerset and Wiltshire that have limited levels of service such as Castle Cary, Frome, and Melksham will see significant increases in the number of departures; and connecting services will open up rail journeys that are currently impractical such as Taunton to Yeovil and Frome to Swindon.
Discussions between GO-OP and the West Somerset Railway could lead to a scheduled daily service linking the national rail network, via Taunton, to the heritage railway at Bishops Lydeard for the first time in 50 years. Passengers will be able to change there for leisure services to Minehead, and may also see an increase in bus services so that more people in West Somerset and North Devon can access the railway.
“The WSR has always encouraged train operators to run trains to connect with the very popular heritage steam trains that run from Bishops Lydeard to Minehead”, said a spokesperson for West Somerset Railway. “We are at an early stage and will continue discussions as GO-OP resolves the many issues involved in running on the national network."
The announcement follows the conclusion of capacity tests by Network Rail which have established that there is capacity on the network to introduce GO-OP’s services. The next step will be a performance analysis to ensure that as the trains approach Swindon there will be no risk to the punctuality of other operators.
"GO-OP has been engaged with the Aspirant Open Access team at Network Rail for some years now, most recently asking their train planners to assess whether capacity existed in the timetable for GO-OP's additional services. Further work, including performance analysis and evidence of rolling stock suitability, will be needed before Network Rail can decide whether the planned track access application can secure their support", said a statement from Network Rail.
“We have been working towards this point for many years since we first began meeting as a group of frustrated rail travellers”, said GO-OP’s Operations Director Alex Lawrie, “and for a while it looked like the pandemic might be one challenge too many. We are very grateful to the volunteers and staff of the West Somerset Railway, and to the many rail industry experts, who have enabled us to bring forward proposals that actually exceed our original ambitions in many ways.”